Career Counselor Deals With Cancer Recurrence With Candor, Humor

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Katherine Scott, a senior at The University of Texas at Austin, wrote this profile of her coworker Joel Driver as an assignment in an upper-division journalism class.

Joel.jpgIf he did not have cancer as a teenager, Joel Driver would be a different person. But not necessarily a better one, he says.

Engaged in a new battle after more than 15 years of his cancer being stable, Driver says he's better off now than he could have been. He still loves interacting with others, watching old movies and shooting pool.

He wants people to see him as a person first, before knowing anything about his history with cancer.

Recurrence after 15 years is shocking
Diagnosed with thyroid cancer at 15 after seeking medical attention for a broken nose, Driver thought his cancer was under control once it was treated. But in November 2008, he learned the cancer had spread to his brain, kidney, spleen, liver and spine. Yet neither the cancer nor its treatment has slowed him down.

Driver, a career counselor at The University of Texas at Austin, is currently on an oral investigational drug to treat the recurrence. He is under the care of Naifa Busaidy, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Endocrine Neoplasia, and Razelle Kurzrock, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Investigational Cancer Therapeutics.

Born on a U.S. Air Force base in Germany, Driver moved with his family to Idaho, then England, and finally to Florida. "My life was exciting. I got to see the world, experience lots of cultures and see things you only read about. It helped give me a new perspective on life."

Sports injury prompts concern
An athletic boy, he had broken his nose several times, but after a basketball injury at 15, a doctor expressed concern about the size of his neck. Thyroid cancer was found in his lymph nodes, his trachea and behind his breastplate. He endured a grueling 18-hour surgery -- one he was not expected to survive.

"My parents had so many tough decisions to make," he says. "The doctors were percentage-oriented, and my mom, the pit bull, told them they had to 'be positive' because she knew she needed to keep my spirits up.

"The cancer had wrapped itself around one of my vocal chords, which disintegrated in the doctor's hands."

Driver, who had sung in his church choir, would now have trouble singing in the car.

But he insists he didn't regret what was happening. "Cancer isn't fun, but so much good came out of it."

Making up for lost time

For one thing, a close family became even closer. "My brother and I are best friends, and my dad, mother and I have been able to spend more time alone together," he says.

He also credits his survival at 15 to God and to his family's strong faith. He'd been a serious child, eager to grow up as fast as possible, but his diagnosis gave him a new outlook. "I was more excited about life, and I decided to make up for lost time."

He bargained with his tumors. "I thought of them as loiterers in a rental property. I made a deal with them: 'As long as you don't get rowdy, we're good, but if you get out of line, I'm coming after you.'"

Between 1993 and 2008, Driver made regular visits to M. D. Anderson. Then, in November 2008, he was told that the cancer had spread to his brain, kidney, liver, spleen and spine. He underwent brain surgery in January 2009. "When I woke up from surgery, I sang Neil Diamond's 'Coming to America,' because you have to deal with these things with humor," he says.

Cancer doesn't define him
Driver's job in career counseling is a perfect fit for his compassionate and engaging nature, and he can't imagine doing anything else. It offers him variety every day, and allows him to learn how people develop.

Someday he'd like to open a used bookstore with his brother, with office space in the back and perhaps a career counseling center attached.

His favorite quote, "Hope is the feeling that the feeling you have isn't permanent," reminds him that life is constantly changing. "Cancer is an important piece of my life, but I don't feel like I've had cancer," he says. "I see the scars, but I feel healthy. I don't give it more attention than it deserves. I want people to make up their minds about me as a person."

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